Escape from France

Extract from the fictional Journal of Phillipe de Saint-Claire – translated from the ancient Occitan language into modern English. Phillipe and his friend attempt to escape to Spain


Before Raymonde and I left the castle at le Bézu we considered carefully which direction we should take. In the end we decided the only safe course was to cross the high mountains to the south and enter the lands of the King of Aragon, who we believed was still sympathetic to the Cathar faith.

After two days walking we reached the snowfields of the high Pyrenees. The next morning Raymonde complained of feeling unwell. He had pains in his chest and was finding breathing difficult – a problem which I believe can be experienced by many people in the mountains if they attempt to exercise their bodies too greatly. For myself, being younger, I was still feeling quite well and wished to push on towards our destination. I understood the border with Aragon was only four or five leagues distant and could easily be achieved in the day, notwithstanding the fact that much of the way would be up steep snow slopes. Faced with my enthusiasm, Raymonde assured me that he was well enough to accompany me. Thus my intemperate nature was the cause of the tragedy which befell us.

Within a short distance of setting out we encountered deep snow. We were heading for a high col between two peaks and therefore had probably chosen to follow a shallow valley where the snow was deepest. As we climbed it began to snow and the visibility became very bad. Although he was flagging badly, Raymonde foolishly supported me in my wish to proceed.

As we drew near to the top the way became much steeper. There was a lot of projecting rock which was slippery with ice and with deep crevasses of snow in between.  Suddenly Raymonde slipped and fell on to his back. Because of the steepness of the slope he started sliding ever faster, bumping over rocks and flying through the air in places and landing with a crash on the icy surface until he came up with an awful impact against a large rock.

I hastened as speedily as I could to his side but the sight when I got there was enough to make my heart quail. His body was bent backwards around the sharp rock at an impossible angle and I was certain that he had broken many bones. His face was smeared with blood which was welling from his mouth. That made me believe he had also damaged some of his internal organs, perhaps even his heart or lungs. He was breathing very slowly and was deeply unconscious.

Despite my experience of seeing many men killed during the siege of Montségur, I had never been called upon to attempt to repair such damage to a man’s body. In the last few days I had come to love Raymonde as if he had been one of my family. I looked to Guillaume who was standing nearby for assistance but he simply shrugged and said, “That one is dead.”

I knew we were going to have to carry Raymonde the rest of the way. I looked at the rough terrain and my heart failed me. I knew we would never make it.

Guillaume was bending over Raymonde. “He is certainly dead,” he said.

I inspected the body of my companion. He had turned a sort of pale grey except for the clot of blood which had frozen in his mouth. I knew then that Guillaume spoke correctly. So I wept for the last man in the whole of the Languedoc whom I could call a friend. I knew then that I was alone in the world.


The photo shows the Pyrenees in early spring. I will complete the journal next week.

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